Preparing for difficult conversations helps you ask for what you want, even when it’s really hard.
“My daughter needs to ask her soccer coach for more playing time,” my friend said as we watched our girls at soccer practice. “She’ll never do it, though — it’s too scary.”
I wish she would do it anyway. It’s good practice for her future career.
A coaching client was talking about the corporate equivalent of “playing time”: She didn’t get a promotion she felt she had earned.
“I need to talk to my manager and understand what I did wrong,” said my client, a top-performing senior manager at a multinational firm.
“What if you did nothing wrong?” I asked her. “What if your mistake is not speaking up?”
“I’ve avoided these kinds of conversations my entire career,” she mused. “I thought my work spoke for itself.” (That’s an assumption that makes my head explode.)
I gave her three pieces of homework to prepare for a difficult conversation with her manager.
1. Prepare your opening statement. Write it out and practice it. Your opening statement calmly and clearly describes the problem and your goal for the conversation. Your strong emotions are regulated. Your statement could sound something like:
“I am disappointed in my performance review this year. I do not believe it reflects my contribution and success over the last 12 months. Given evidence that I am a top performer, I need to understand how you reached these conclusions.”
Congratulations, you are now a squeaky wheel. You have framed the conversation as seeking clarification on your management’s process, rather than taking it all on yourself.
2. Predict your manager’s explanations. Make a long list of his/her possible arguments — say, 20 possible arguments, ranging from the reasonable and constructive to the outrageous. Prepare how you will respond to these explanations. This is not about having a defensive argument with your manager; it’s about calm, reasoned pushback to spurious explanations, in the moment, in a stressful conversation.
Prepare your response to even the most outrageous explanations in a way that you are proud of.
Gather data. The point of this conversation is to signal to your management that, in the future, you will no longer passively accept bogus explanations for being overlooked. Have the data at your fingerprints.
You are signaling here that you are open to and appreciative of feedback, and that you will not accept being snowed.
I hope my friend’s daughter talks with her coach, even if it’s scary. She might get great feedback on how to be a better soccer player — and maybe more playing time — and it’s great squeaky wheel practice.